To be paid or not to be paid, that used to be the question — especially when it came to federal internships.

Today, the majority of these programs, or at least the ones run by the Office of Personnel Management, are compensated, though there are some “volunteer” programs out there, like this one at the International Development Finance Corporation.

Since internship pay is regulated on an agency-by-agency basis, due to there not being a law mandating a specific level of compensation, some internships can be unpaid, some pay minimum wage and some pay the equivalent of full-time salaries.

So the only easy answer to “how much will I be paid as an intern for the government?” is: it depends.

“It depends on your level of experience and expertise and the position you’re hired into, and the work that you’re expected to do,” said Michael Mahoney, who manages the hiring policy office at OPM.

Some 60,000 paid internships were given out within the federal government in 2010, however, according to the White House’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget, that number has dropped to just 4,000.

In response to that drastic cut, initiatives like the Pay Our Interns push to include interns in the federal budget have been urging the federal government to institutionalize and standardize paid intern opportunities. OPM, also at the request of lawmakers, has reviewed its flagship program called Pathways and put out proposed reforms last week.

The proposed changes to Pathways offer easier access to the program for people without degrees and make the process of converting an internship into a permanent position more flexible.

The Pathways Program is one popular route to finding a federal internship. Another is browsing USAJobs, the main website listing available federal internships, to find programs with salaries as much as $50,000 to $60,000 a year — more than some full-time jobs.

Many internship salaries, however, do not exceed the U.S. median income.

So because pay for federal interns can vary, check the job description, which should list compensation level, Mahoney advised.

Some federal internships, like internships at OPM, operate on the General Schedule scale.

“The internships at OPM administers, like the Pathways Program, their interns are paid in the same manner as other federal employees, such as myself,” said Mahoney. “Which is to say that for every position, there’s a grade level based on one’s level of education and experience and there’s a scale that comes with that — a pay range — which is sometimes adjusted for locality pay.”

The GS is generally how most federal employees are paid.

The less experience an applicant has when applying, the lower on the scale said applicant will be placed and vice versa. For interns, there is no one grade an applicant is automatically assigned, however, interns who have not earned a degree yet may get hired on the lower end, around levels two, three, four or five, according to Mahoney.

“Because oftentimes [interns] qualify just on the basis of a college degree or the fact that they’re in school getting a degree, they don’t have a lot of experience,” Mahoney said. “So, they’re going to make it on the lower end. But that isn’t always the case.”

Not every agency necessarily conforms to the GS as a default method of payment, however.

“Sometimes agencies do have their own pay scales in law,” Mahoney said. “But, generally speaking, we defer to the General Schedule, and in our rules we say ‘or equivalent’ to accommodate those agencies that might have something a little bit different.”

“Unpaid federal internships, they’re still valuable experiences,” said Brian Rowe, director of experiential education at American University’s career center. “I think there’s a lot of flexibility with volunteer internships. I see our students engaging in those experiences. I mean, they’re good experiences. They do give federal experience and give exposure to the federal work culture and to agencies and their missions. So yes, they’re there. They’re a part of the internship landscape.”

Some feel that valuable experience that unpaid internships can provide is not always a compelling enough reason to take one.

“I wish they were paid,” said Elizabeth Schill, assistant director for professional development at the Georgetown Cawley Career Education Center. “I think schools like Georgetown or American are unique in that a lot of students are already here in D.C. during the year. But it does prevent a lot of students who otherwise can’t afford to do an internship from doing these fantastic internships.

“I think unpaid internships just exclude a whole lot of students. And it becomes an area where the students who are in more elite classes have that it’s kind of that self perpetuating cycle where students who already have access to a lot of these programs and opportunities by virtue of their background, continue to do so,” she said.

While applicants should not expect that housing is provided during a federal internship, as it often is not, certain agencies, like the National Park Services, do provide it when sending you to a National Park, however, this does not necessarily mean that the pay is a liveable salary.

“It wasn’t possible for me to take up another job during the internship [because] I was working full time,” said Kira Carney, a former intern for the National Park Service. “Housing was provided, so that was helpful. Food and meal planning, and all of that was not provided. In general, it was not as well paying as it should have been, particularly in regard to how much it costs to travel there. Across the board, interns need to be paid significantly more for the incredible amount of work that they’re doing for organizations.”

The average cost of living in Washington, D.C., is 53% higher than the national average. Some estimates say that an intern should budget between $115 and $170 per week for general expenses in D.C. outside of rent.

“I think the standard was $15 an hour,” said Katie Gray, a former intern for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “I can’t remember if I went up the GS, like up a grade, when I was there the second year, but if so, it was a very small amount, like only ten or fifteen cents more the second year. So, is it livable? Probably not.”

Aside from how much they’ll be paid, interns may also be wondering whether they’re likely to get hired after their internship.

Again, the answer: it depends.

“We do run a merit system, but as long as your background, your educational experience and/or your work experience [are good], I mean, there’s generally two ways to qualify for federal jobs: education, experience or a combination of both,” Mahoney said.

Each internship posting will specify if there are opportunities to move into a permanent position.

“First and foremost, conversion is always at the discretion of the hiring manager or the agency that’s employing them,” Mahoney said. “And sometimes there are realities in which the agency wants to but can’t convert people [like] budget constraints.”

Under the current regulations, interns can convert to other agencies if they accrue so many hours. When in doubt, ask your internship coordinator, Mahoney said, and be prepared to be flexible.

Georgina DiNardo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News and a recent graduate of American University, specializing in journalism, psychology, and photography in Washington, D.C.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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